From Chanakya to Modi: The Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy

By Wajahat Qazi

Diasporic academics and researchers, ensconced in think tanks and prominent research institutions of the West have a curious proclivity: they tend to conflate the prosaic with the profound or even the extraordinary, while analyzing their countries of origin. This general observation finds an eloquent resonance in the work of one scholar of Indian origin housed by the Hudson Institute of the United States, Aparna Pande. The scholar, laces the introduction of her book, “From Chanakya to Modi: The Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy”, with anecdotes that supposedly serve as a metaphor for India. One pertains to the solution of the problem of bullock carts by regulating instead of banning them. The other is Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s championing of Yoga and the adoption of an International Yoga Day by the United Nation’s General Assembly(UNGA). Pande employs these anecdotes as a metaphor for “ India’s tendency to add new to the old, instead of replacing it […] which permeates the realm of India’s relations with the rest of the world”. Here is an example or instance of diasporic imagination, at its best. But, the prosaic reality is that both anecdotes that Pande employs, at best, reflect what is a common and quotidian practice in India- the practice of “jugaad” or a “fix” to problems that present themselves in the Indian context. “Jugaad” might also find an echo in the nature and formulation India’s foreign policy. But , Pande, in her elegiac elaboration of the nature, sources and roots of Indian Foreign Policy has a rather different narrative to trot. She avers essentially that Indian Foreign Policy can best be understood in relation to India’s sense of self, which , in turn, accrues from its self understanding as a civilization and the Indian exceptionalism that flows from these memes. Pande asserts that certain themes underlie India’s foreign policy that resonate through the times and find an echo contemporarily. These bear the ingress of India’s political philosophy and philosophers like Kautilya(Chanakya)- also , sometimes, referred to as the Machiavelli of India. Kautilyan political philosophy is, however, not the only source or inspiration of Indian foreign policy. It is synthesized with the modern and the novel which leads to a constellation of factors that make the Indian foreign policy tradition. While Indian foreign policy cannot be subsumed under a taut straitjacket, but if a contemporary parallel with the foreign policy traditions of the United States might be drawn, it corresponds to the typology adumbrated by the American scholar, Walter Russel Mead, who categorized American foreign policy under four rubrics or traditions- Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jacksonian and continental realism, avers Pande.
The form that these manifest in India lie in the gyrations between Nehruvian “idealism”, “ moralism” and “realism. Perhaps best characterized by India’s post independent stance of Non- Alignment, which Pande, citing several scholars of merit and repute , was as much a need and a necessity as a “foreign policy doctrine” was enunciated and put into practice by Nehru. It was a need because India neither had the power nor the wherewithal to compete in a world of states dominated by the structural bipolarity of the Cold War. “Nehruvianism” , as Pande calls it, was and is a thematic concern embedded in the foreign policy ideas and practice of Indian foreign policy- so much so that, barring variations on the theme , almost all political dispensations follow it. The corollary to this is India’s penchant for “strategic autonomy” which is a legacy of India’s freedom movement and the world view that flowed from it. These themes are so deeply woven into India’s fabric that even the country’s watershed economic reforms of 1991 failed to entirely displace these. India, in one way , or the other , reverted to “type”
The form and architecture of the conception, formulation , design of India’s foreign policy rest on the bureaucratic structures and edifices of the British Raj, according to Pande. This legacy imbues and leaves its ingress on Indian strategic and security thinking and even culture, which Pande believes needs to be rejigged and attuned to the times. While there have been innovations and tinkering on the edges of this inherited structure, like the novelty of the office of the National Security Adviser, and real power lies with the Prime Minister’s Office, more needs to be done, in Pande’s schemata. In the final analysis, according to Pande, India shares deep similarities with the United States, especiallly in terms of its “exceptionalism”, and to actually realize India’s potential , the country can do better by aligning itself with the United States. But, for this and for India to convert its influence into power, many shibboleths , need to be broken and new territories mapped and charted.
Pande’s book is essentially in the nature of a diasporic scholar’s attempts to inject and chart a new course for her country. But, it suffers, both methodologically and , in terms of precision , on many accounts. First, Pande’s account or narrative is mostly inferential and the broad thrust and outline of the tome appears to be more in the nature of a literature review than original thinking. Consider an example. Pande holds India to be a hoary civilization. But, in reality, this is an elitist construct. India, in pre modern avatar was a congeries of kingdoms where a maverick political philosopher sought both employment and a niche for himself. Second, there is no such thing as “Indianness” in both Nehru’s sense of the term and the way Pande employs it. This too is a construct foisted upon what is a bi-focal country which may be best characterized as India and Bharat- the former a modern enclave in the multitude of the common Indians by the Indian elite. The denizens of Bharat neither share nor have an Idea of Indianness and Indian exceptionalism, which appears to be a vanity of the few. Similarly, the oscillation between “Non Alignment” and “Realism” in Indian Foreign Policy which Pande holds to be the “middle path”, in all likelihood accrues from the pulls and pressures of India’s inchoate and muddled modernity and the incoherence thereof. Moreover, while Pande takes pains to include Muslim contribution to India, the prosaic fact is that post British India was run and managed by a Hindu elite. The Hindu world view, informed by the tenets of Hinduism, accords certainty to its adherents and thereby a certain risk aversion. This may account for the moralistic, (critiqued by many as hypocrisy) overtones of Indian foreign policy, and a to a degree Non Alignment and even the so called Indian exceptionalism of the elite few. More important perhaps is the revision India is contemporarily undergoing on account of the rise of the forces of political Hinduism to the highest pedestals of power in India. While this“ nouveau” but oppressive nationalism shares the outlook of Indian exceptionalism with its forbears, but it seeks to engineer a new India. What impact it will have on the form and nature of Indian foreign policy remains in the domain of the “ unknown unknown”- despite Pande’s assertions that a certain continuity undergirds the protagonists of political Hinduism too. All in all, Pande’s book is readable, written in a lucid , engaging style but, in the final analysis, it is more in the nature of the triumph of hope against prosaic reality.

—The author can be reached at: wajahatqazi1234@gmail.com